Crescent Hill

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I wanted to be her hero.

But she was never mine to save.

The harder I tried, the faster we crumbled.

The faster we crumbled, the harder we tumbled.

I couldn’t be her hero.

CHAPTER ONE
14 days left

A sharp pain radiated from my tailbone up to my spine, hot and fast. My arse burned fiercely as my hands scrabbled for purchase. Using a nearby rock, I eased back on my feet and swept the snow off my trousers.

Someone needed to clear those icy steps before a guest slipped and cracked their skull. Less than twenty-four hours into my fourteen-day sojourn and I was already suffering. I was just glad nobody had witnessed me falling arse over tit. That would’ve added to my humiliation.

The surroundings were deserted—not a single person, animal, or car for miles. In fact, during the entire cab ride here from the docks, I hadn’t seen more than two vehicles, and those were headed in the opposite direction.

Crescent Hill towered before me, a magnificent sight. Thousands of frosted red, gold, and orange maple leaves blanketed the slopes like confetti. Massive Red Cedars towered in the distance like solemn guardians, their woody arms covered in pristine powder. Behind me, great swathes of snow flanked the main road, untouched by human feet. I squinted up at the behemothic building nestled at the top of the hill. In the weak winter sunlight, the lodge looked like a hibernating giant.

With the right stewardship, this place could be great.

I always enjoyed fantasizing about a hotel’s potential. After all, a fresh coat of paint and a new attitude worked wonders in most cases. Right now, however, the lodge looked as if someone had staked a huge “Do Not Trespass” sign on the front lawn. Several boarded-up windows upstairs looked like horrendous eyepatch jobs. Only two little lights were on in the entire building. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought I was approaching a haunted house, not a historic hotel.

Damn. I had my work cut out for me.

Dragging my suitcase behind me, I attempted to climb the hill once more. The luggage wheels clacked against each rimy step, threatening to fly away from me.

After muttering half a dozen more expletives, I managed to arrive at the lodge’s front entrance. Monolithic cedar beams girded by hundreds of twinkling holiday lights greeted me. A massive evergreen wreath hung on the front door, its red and green LEDs intermittently flashing ‘Merry X-mas’. Christmas was just around the corner, and if I did my job right, this place would be packed by the new year. Unfortunately, my brief bout of optimism was dashed when I saw the crooked sign above the door: “Cr  ent Hil  Lo ge”. The plaque was missing five whole letters, and the owners hadn’t bothered to replace them.

I sighed, my breath escaping in foggy puffs. My entire body ached at that point, and I couldn’t wait to get inside and warm up by the fire.

There was a lot of work waiting for me tomorrow.

Tugging on the ornate door handles, (which were a pair of beautiful antlers) I was met with surprising resistance.

The door was frozen shut.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I cried, kicking the doors for good measure. An icicle fell off the eaves and crashed behind me. “Shit.”

I tried to locate a doorbell of some sort, but also came up short. How were guests supposed to alert the staff when they’d arrived? “Hello? Anyone in there?”

Raising a gloved hand to the door, I began thumping it.

Two minutes and a bruised knuckle later, I heard footsteps approach. A bolt clicked open on the other side, followed by some rattling noises.

“Langston Summers! Get over here!” a shrill woman cried. “The door’s stuck again!”

I shook my head and sighed. They hadn’t even known the front door was inaccessible until I came around. I was already dreading the next two weeks of hell. I hadn’t even met the owners yet, but I could already tell they were incompetent and irresponsible. Perhaps cabin fever set in a long time ago and they just stopped caring about their business. Perhaps the entire island’s economy was falling to shambles. Whatever it was, it would take everything I had to put this failing hotel back on the map. I just hoped they wouldn’t be stupid enough to ignore my suggestions.

Ten minutes later, after a lot of grunting and cursing, the door cracked open. A buxom, red-faced woman and a tall, spindly old man greeted me. They were probably in their late fifties, early sixties. The woman was wearing a red and green knit jumper with an ankle-length wool skirt, and the man, a blue polyester pullover with tan trousers.

“Terribly sorry,” the woman said, dabbing her sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. “Damn door always sticks when it’s below thirty-two degrees.”

“Not only that, I nearly slipped half a dozen times trying to make it up those steps back there.”

“So sorry. I had no idea…”

I extended my hand. “How do you do, Ms…”

“Call me Mercy.” The woman beamed and shook my hand, her massive bosom heaving as she did so. “Mercy Mary Beth Summers. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir.”

“And I’m her husband and co-owner of Crescent Hill Lodge. Name’s Langston Summers,” the man said, offering his callused hand and a tight smile. His hair was graying at the temples, and his sandpaper skin was flecked with age spots. Salt-and-pepper scruff hugged his jawline.

“Nice to meet you both. I’m Roman Finnegan.”

“Oh, we know,” Mercy said, smiling. “We’ve been looking forward to your visit all week, Mr. Finnegan. Please, do come in and get yourself warmed up by the fire.”

“I’d love to,” I said. I cleaned my boots on the welcome mat, then lugged my suitcase inside. Its wheels left two wet, S-shaped trails on the hardwood floor.

At first glance, the interior of the lodge seemed reasonably neat and well-maintained. The spacious lobby sported thirty-foot vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. Very classy. The view was somewhat obscured by the snow, but on a bright day, I had no doubt it was phenomenal. What wasn’t classy was the legion of taxidermy corpses that greeted me from every angle of the room: buck and bear heads, stuffed falcons, owls and even a lynx. Their beady, lifeless eyes made me feel unwelcome, even intimidated. I felt like a dazed child walking through a natural history museum.

I sought out the crackling fireplace and after removing my coat, scarf, and gloves, I sat on a cushion by the fire to warm up. After a moment, I noticed that the carpet was fraying at the edges and covered in soot. Standing up, I realized that my hands and the back of my trousers were blackened by ash. “Shit. This here is a fire hazard.”

“Would you like me to bring your things up to your room, Mr. Finnegan?” Mercy’s voice came behind me. Her cheeks were still flushed, and her reddish-gray hair poked out of her bonnet like wires. What the hell was she wearing a bonnet for?

I pointed to the fireplace. “When was the last time somebody cleaned the hearth?”

Mercy scratched the back of her hand, her dry skin sloughing off in flakes. “I’m not sure. But I’ll look into it right away.”

I bit the inside of my cheek. “Thank you.” Then I added, “I’d like to get settled in now, if you don’t mind.” I brushed off my dirty clothes. “Please show me to my room.”

“Certainly. Follow me,” Mercy said. She nodded to a few rusty nails jutting out of the floor at crooked angles. “Mind your step, please.”

Why the hell were there rusty nails sticking out of the floor? Were they trying to give people tetanus? Send guests to the ER?

We scaled two flights of stairs and wound down a dark corridor before Mercy unlocked a door at the far end of the hall. “This is the Staghorn Suite. Best in the house,” Mercy said. “I do hope you like it. Here’s the key.”

I scanned the suite. Its depressing walls were plastered with peeling yellow wallpaper and the patterned comforter on top of the bed was pilling and sun-bleached. The once cream carpet sported miscellaneous brown stains, and the entire room smelled like a musty coffin. I tried my best not to frown. “Thank you, Mercy. I’d like to meet your staff after dinner service,” I said. “If you could please let them know.”

“Of course. Did you need anything else?”

“No, this is fine. Thanks.”

“I’ll see you later then,” Mercy said, grabbing my hand and patting it. “And Roman, thank you so much for coming.”

“You’re very welcome, Mercy.”


CHAPTER TWO

After Mercy had left, I began unpacking my suitcase. I ran my index finger along the top of the dresser, and it came back covered with dust. My clothes would probably stay cleaner inside my suitcase than out. This place wasn’t even fit to be a pig sty. It was quite possibly the worst hotel I’d ever stayed at. Even worse than that ramshackle hut in Kathmandu I visited six years ago—at least that was clean, if spartan.

The enormous stag head looming over my king-sized bed was not only coated with visible grime, but it also looked poorly mounted. I wondered if it would impale me in my sleep.

God, what a way to go: death by taxidermy stag.

I bent down and sniffed the sheets. They smelled like lavender. At least they had the decency to clean those before my arrival, or else I’d need to roll out my sleeping bag.

I walked over to the window to let in some fresh air. When I parted the thick curtains, a plume of dust rose to greet me. I coughed into my elbow and sneezed. Did they even employ any cleaning staff at this hotel? My room looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the hotel had first opened in 1922. I looked down at the rotting sill and saw a parade of dead insects waiting for me. A few beetle, wasp and fly corpses lay in twisted poses, most of them belly up. “Hello there,” I greeted them. “Looks like you fellas had a shit stay here.” I scooped up the corpses and flung them out the window.

What a disgusting room. I didn’t even need a black light or a bacteria test kit to tell me how filthy everything was. Grime oozed from a thousand different surfaces, mocking every health and sanitation law ever written.

I shuddered to think how much the owners charged for a suite like this.

I wanted to take a long, hot bath to soothe my achy muscles, but I was a bit reluctant to see the bathroom, given the deplorable state of the bedroom. Unfortunately, I reeked badly enough that I had no better options.

The bathroom looked better. Renovated with modern finishes. Brushed nickel faucets and a tasteful checkered backsplash. A clawfoot soaker tub: the epitome of luxury. But what worried me the most was the reason behind the renovation. The rest of the suite looked dated; something out of a seventies catalog. But this bathroom was right in the twenty-first century…Did the hotel suffer from plumbing issues? A previous flood?

Too tired to dwell on it further, I ran a bath and stripped down. My skin felt sticky after the eleven-hour flight, hour-long bus ride, and forty-five-minute ferry to Penderton Island. To make matters worse, I’d booked a last-minute red-eye, which left dark rings around my eyes and a jet-lagged pallor on my cheeks.

Just as I was about to step into the steaming bath, I heard footsteps outside. Wrapping a towel around my waist, I left the bathroom to investigate the noise. When I popped out, the first thing I saw was an arse. A delicious, heart-shaped arse that connected to a pair of long, toned legs and…

A goddess, on her hands and knees.

Maybe this job wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me.”

The woman jolted like a startled cat.

“Can I help you with something?” I asked, delighted by how flustered she looked.

Her doe eyes widened as she turned to face me. “Shit,” she cried. “I didn’t know someone was in here.” When her eyes flicked over my naked torso, her face darkened to an even deeper shade of burgundy. “I’m going to go,” she said. “Sorry about—”

“Hold on, what’s your name, love?”

“Magnolia—just call me Maggie.”

“Do you work here, Maggie?”

Maggie nodded, biting her lip. “I’m the general manager.”

“So…what are you doing in my suite?”

“I think I lost my earring in here,” she explained, avoiding my gaze.

“How—”

“I was cleaning here the other day,” Maggie explained.

I wanted to laugh. If Maggie really had cleaned here, she’d done an absolute crap job. It was a miracle she hadn’t been fired yet. “So you’re in housekeeping as well?” I asked.

“I do a little bit of everything I guess. I help out wherever I’m needed,” Maggie said. “Anyway, I’ll just—”

“You might as well look now. I’ll be staying here for two weeks, and you may not get another chance to find it.”

“You—You’re—” Maggie stammered. She licked her lower lip. I loved watching her pink tongue dart out and across her full mouth.

I nodded. “That’s me.”

“I am so sorry, Mr. Finnegan. I thought you were coming tomorrow,” Maggie apologized. “This is so embarrassing.”

“Let’s just look for your earring, shall we?”

Something like relief washed over Maggie’s face. “Thank you. Yes.”

I grabbed a fresh change of clothes, got dressed, and then began the search. For the next ten minutes, we crawled on hands and knees, and scoured almost every inch of the bedroom. I looked under the bed, while Maggie checked the closet.

I couldn’t help but sneak a few peeks at Maggie’s delicious, curvy body during our little scavenger hunt. She was wearing a v-neck top that showcased her ample cleavage, and a pair of jeans that emphasized her perfect bum. At one point, her breasts were so close to my hand, all I had to do was brush the fabric, and her tits would’ve popped free. This woman sure knew how to flaunt her assets. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

I hoped she didn’t dress like that for work; it’d certainly give guests the wrong impression of this place. In fact, she was already arousing very unprofessional feelings within me; specifically, between my legs. I hadn’t slept with anyone for almost eight months, and now God was throwing this woman in my lap and telling me I could look but not touch.

She would be a problem. I could feel it. Those glossy, bee-stung lips, long, brown lashes and loose strawberry-blond curls…Who would’ve thought I’d meet a gem like her in a place like this? Her hair rippled down her back like spun gold and it smelled like pomegranates. I wanted to weave my fingers through it; feel her silky strands against my skin…

I’m here for a job, not a vacation, I reminded myself.

She worked here, which meant she was one-hundred percent off-limits.

Get your head screwed straight.

After a couple more minutes, I spotted a twinkle near the baseboards. I picked up the sparkly stud and held it out on my palm. “Is this it?”

Maggie’s face lit up. She picked up the earring and squeezed it in her hand. “Yes. Thank you, mister—”

“Just call me Roman.”

“Roman, thanks again, really. These are my favorite pair. My grandma gave them to me when I was twelve. Well, I’ll uh, get out of your hair now.” Maggie began backing away toward the door.

“That would be wise, seeing as how I was about to take a bath before you came barging in,” I said.

Maggie’s face grew red again. “I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again. I’ll let you…get back to it. See you around.”

“Yes. See you around, Maggie.”

I watched Maggie’s gorgeous silhouette disappear down the hall before locking the door and returning to my bath. Unfortunately, the water had grown tepid. I emptied the tub and took a quick shower instead. It wasn’t nearly as relaxing, but at least it made me presentable for dinner. After my shower, I retrieved my razor so I could shave my day’s worth of stubble. As I ran my razor under the faucet, I examined my appearance in the mirror, and found it satisfactory.

I was by no means sexier than a GQ model, but I was easy on the eyes, or so the ladies liked to tell me. I had a head full of thick and wavy dirty blond hair, which I swept to the right and held together with pomade. I was most self-conscious of my lips, which were too thin and looked like they were perpetually frowning. Other than that, my nose was average in size, and my eyes, nothing remarkable (unfortunately). They were a rather drab color, ‘muddy puddles’, as my twin sister, Amelia, called them. Unlike my mates back home, my body was a blank canvas that had never touched a drop of ink. I didn’t think tattoos made a person cooler or more wicked. Neither did I need ink to “express myself”. That’s what words and actions were for. My body was lean and fit, but by no means sculpted, and I sported a patch of dark hair that began at my chest and tapered down past my belly button. I was happy with the way I looked. In fact, most men in their mid-thirties couldn’t hold a candle to me.

I shut off the water and patted my smooth skin dry. Clean-shaven, I could be mistaken for someone in his late-twenties. I practiced my smile, which was my best feature, despite my slightly crooked teeth. Somehow, between smiles and mock facial expressions, I found myself having a conversation with my reflection. Damn, I was really knackered.

Despite trying my best to focus on a game plan for the hotel, I found myself daydreaming about the gorgeous manager. She had an unfathomable quality to her: a mix of deer-caught-in-the-headlights and quiet sensuality. Her breathy voice tugged at something deep within me, salvaging shipwrecked sensations I thought had sunken forever.

Any other time or place, I would’ve asked for her number. Perhaps took her out on a nice date. Or two. Or ten.

But not here.

Not now.

I couldn’t afford to get sidetracked. Not when the Summers family depended on me to save their livelihood. Whatever I felt towards this beautiful woman, albeit for only a few minutes, I wouldn’t let myself feel it again. After all, emotions always overcomplicated anything work-related. And getting personally involved with an American woman was the last thing I needed right now.


CHAPTER THREE

At six o’clock, I found my way down to the restaurant. It adjoined the main foyer, and I was not the least bit surprised to find it deserted. Though it was a Friday evening, every single table sat vacant. The restaurant sported the same lackluster décor as my suite: unattractive and dated wallpaper, stained carpets and hideous quatrefoil tablecloths.

“Hello, table for one,” I said, smiling at the bored-looking hostess. The woman had garish red hair streaked with orange highlights. The top of her head looked like a sunset gone wrong. Dark purple eye shadow made her eyes appear small and lifeless. She wore an oversized black blouse, which she tucked into a pair of navy trousers, and secured with a slim white belt. The hostess put away her smartphone and picked up a greasy menu. I followed her to a table, and she handed me the laminated page, then started to walk away.

“Excuse me, Miss,” I said, “could you please tell me what the soup of the day is?”

The petite woman, whose crooked name tag read Tina, shrugged. “Probably cream of broccoli. It’s always broccoli.”

“You mean the soup of the day never changes?” I asked.

“None of our ‘specials’ ever change,” Tina said. “Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

Tina’s blasé attitude, coupled with the restaurant’s depressing atmosphere, made me reluctant to try the food here. It was so quiet I felt like I was attending a funeral, not Friday night dinner service. I half expected a priest to start delivering a speech in the corner.

After perusing my options, I settled for Louisiana-style BBQ ribs, a French Onion soup, and their homemade apple crumble.

Tina brought me a glass of water and then repeated my order to the kitchen staff in the back. I could hear some mumbled replies.

I was hoping to ask Tina a few more questions about the lodge, but she didn’t return for twenty minutes. When she did reappear, she swayed from side to side, trying not to spill my piping hot bowl of soup. Tina placed the brown mush in front of me and smiled. She had a piece of broccoli stuck between her front teeth. “Bone appetite,” she said.

I wanted to correct her terrible pronunciation, but she disappeared again in a hurry.

I shook open a cloth napkin, laid it on my lap, then dove in. The moment the soup hit my tongue, I was assaulted by the saltiest liquid I’d ever tasted. I didn’t think soup could possibly be this saturated with sodium. There was also hardly any cheese, and whatever chunks I found lifelessly skimming the surface were frozen. Frozen!

When Tina returned with my ribs, she asked me if I liked the soup. “Please tell the chef to get their taste buds checked,” I said. “That soup was saltier than the Pacific Ocean.”

Tina’s eyes widened, as if this was the first time someone had been critical of their food. She darted back into the kitchen, and I turned to examine my next course: barbecue ribs. They didn’t look half bad and had a nice glaze to them. I dug my knife into the meat and found it so tough, I’d have an easier time sawing through a tree branch. I’d gotten excited about nothing. The meat was bone-dry and tasted sour; the entire rack looked like it’d been previously frozen, thawed in the microwave and slathered with some reheated BBQ sauce. I spat out what I could into my napkin and threw it on the table.

Tina wore a grave frown when she returned to collect my plate. “Didn’t like the ribs neither?”

I shook my head. “Is your apple crumble made fresh, in-house?”

Tina shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

This woman was clueless. None of the staff seemed to have a goddamn clue about anything. Why was she even here? Did she have any experience or receive any training?

“Can you please ask?”

Tina sighed a little and dragged her feet all the way back to the kitchen. Minutes later, she returned and said, “It’s made fresh, then frozen. If you have any other questions, ask the chef yourself. I’m not an errand girl.” With that, she returned to her seat and started tapping on her phone again.

I’d never seen a hostess behave so rudely and nonchalantly toward a guest. Yet, apparently, this type of behavior was acceptable to the owners.

Since Tina was absorbed in what appeared to be a video game, I took matters into my own hands and approached the kitchen.

I knocked on the swinging door, and a sweaty man answered it. I recognized him from earlier: he was one of the owners—Langston Summers. Behind him stood two sweaty, younger men who were peeling carrots, and a third, who was scrubbing dishes.

The smell of grease wafting from the kitchen was so pungent I wanted to retch. Langston mopped his forehead with a rag, then shoved it into his apron pocket. “Roman.” He nodded at me.

“Langston. I didn’t expect you in the kitchen,” I said.

“Been cooking all my life,” he replied, hands on hips. “How did you like the food?”

“To be honest, it was pretty awful. Why do you serve frozen food? Why not make it fresh?” I asked.

Langston laughed, as if I’d made a joke. “Money, Roman, it costs money to make fresh food. During the winter, we fill less than a quarter of our rooms upstairs. We practically get no business at all in the restaurant. So to keep costs low—”

“But Langston,” I interrupted, “How do you expect to attract customers for the holidays with such shit food and filthy rooms?”

Fat beads of sweat rolled down Langston’s wobbly cheeks. “It’s not that bad. You’re just picky.”

“Not that bad? Langston, open your bloody eyes. Have you tasted your own food? I wouldn’t feed it to my fucking dog.”

“Now, now, Roman. No need to be rude,” Langston said. “I worked hard to make you that meal.”

I’d had just about enough of this man. I could already tell he was the bullish type. Adverse to change and progress. Stuck in his old ways. And fiercely defensive over what we both knew was a heap of shit. If he gave the kitchen half the time and attention he dedicated to his taxidermy obsession, we wouldn’t have a problem here.

“I’d like to have a staff meeting in about half an hour. Please notify everyone,” I said. “See you then.”


CHAPTER FOUR

Sixteen wide-eyed people stood in the dining room, whispering amongst themselves. They all clammed up as soon as I entered, and I could feel their judgmental stares bore into me.

“You all know why I’m here,” I began. “But in case there was any doubt, my name is Roman Finnegan, and I’m here to save this hotel from bankruptcy. I’m a professional problem solver, and I look forward to helping all of you get this place back on the map.”

Nods spread through the group.

“Obviously, I can’t do it alone,” I continued. “I need your help and cooperation,” I said, trying to make eye contact with as many of the employees as possible. “Mercy and Langston need your help.”

I saw Tina twisting the hem of her wool skirt. Behind her stood Maggie, eyes bright, spine straight. A friendly face in the crowd. Everyone else either seemed bored, or suspicious of me.

“What’s the plan, Roman?” Langston asked, rolling and unrolling a cloth napkin. “We’re all ears.”

I cleared my throat. “I’d like to have a quick chat with the staff first,” I said, “Without the owners present.”

Langston was about to object when Mercy tugged on his arm. “C’mon, let’s go wait upstairs,” she urged.

“All right.” Langston begrudgingly followed his wife.

Once they were upstairs, I turned to their fourteen employees. I nodded to Tina first, to get the ball rolling. “Tina, what do you think is wrong with Crescent Hill?”

Tina glanced at her co-workers, as if afraid to speak up.

“You’re among friends, Tina,” I encouraged her. “Please, tell us what you think.”

“Well, the owners are decent people, but they don’t have any rules. We never know what we’re supposed to be doing,” Tina admitted. “I never got any training or nothing.”

“Okay, that’s a good start,” I said. I turned to Maggie next. “What about you, Maggie? What do you think?”

“Well, I think Tina’s right. This place is disorganized. No one’s motivated to change anything,” Maggie said. “My parents are stubborn and very old school.”

I arched my brow. “You’re the owners’ daughter?”

Maggie nodded. “I grew up on the island. After college, I moved back here to help them out.”

“I see,” I said. “What about you?” I gestured to a gangly man in his early twenties. He had a full beard that swallowed most of his pocked face, and a long, hooked nose.

“Name’s Jesse. I’m the restaurant manager, and Maggie’s younger brother.”

“Do you two have any other siblings I should know about?” I said, smiling. “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

A round of nervous laughter filled the air.

“Just us two. My girlfriend, Caitlyn here, manages the restaurant with me. And she does the accounting,” Jesse explained. “Grandma Rita lives in her own cabin out back. She doesn’t come up except sometimes to eat.” Jesse walked over to the six older men standing in the back of the room and introduced them as Ray, Bob, Oz, Brian, Peter and Rhodes. Ray was a sous-chef, Bob, a line cook, and Oz, a dishwasher. Brian, Peter and Rhodes were servers. I greeted them each in turn, and they agreed that Langston was a terrible cook who needed to get out of the kitchen.

The last five people who introduced themselves were Sylvan, Willa, Brianna, Vivian, and Penelope. All five women were in their late twenties to early thirties. They were part of the housekeeping, room service and night crew. Sometimes, they acted as porters and front desk clerks as well. Everyone did a little bit of everywhere around here, it seemed. No wonder the staff were so confused and disorganized.

I pointed out how dirty my suite was, and Sylvan, the ancient housekeeping supervisor, turned her nose at me. “It’s about as clean as any other place around here,” she said. Willa, a shy and slightly chubby teenager, said nothing. She scrubbed her freckled cheeks and shrugged.

“Willa is mute,” Maggie explained.

I decided to reserve my criticisms toward the housekeeping staff for another time. “Now, let’s hear some suggestions on how to improve things around here. Why don’t you start, Sylvan?”

By the end of the staff meeting, I had a slightly better idea of where things stood amongst the staff. It was important to determine their opinions first, because they were the backbone of this place. A business was only as strong as its employees.

After dismissing the staff, I requested Jesse and Maggie to stay back. I called Langston and Mercy back downstairs, and we sat down for a family meeting. It was late, and I could tell everyone was knackered, so I kept things short and sweet.

Langston’s face was flushed as he sank into the sofa by the fireplace. “What did they say about me?” he asked, clutching the armrest hard.

“How do you know they said anything about you?” I asked.

“They always blame me for making crappy food,” Langston said. “As if their shit doesn’t stink.”

“Langston,” I cautioned.

“It’s true. I bet Ray and Rhodes started badmouthing me the minute I went upstairs,” Langston said.

“Dad, your food does suck,” Jesse pointed out, scratching his chin. “It’s no secret everything you make is previously frozen. Half of the dishes come out over or under-seasoned and freezer burnt.”

“Son, don’t start,” Langston said.

Maggie joined in, “Dad, we’re here to help you and Mom. Roman’s here to help too. But we can’t bring this place back from the dead if you won’t let us.”

Mercy rested a hand on Langston’s shoulders. “Honey, I think the kids are right. Maybe you need to take a break from the kitchen. Put Ray in charge, and help Rhodes with dinner service.”

“Me? Serve food?” Langston cried. “I’m almost sixty! Too old for that shit.”

“You don’t have to serve food, Langston. You just need to get out of that kitchen and let someone who knows what they’re doing take over,” I said. “I tasted your crap earlier. It was inedible slop.”

“Y’all attacking me and I won’t stand for it!” Langston said, standing up. He folded his arms across his chest and tucked his hands under his armpits. “I’m going to bed.”

“Your problems will still be here when you wake up in the morning,” I said. “But sleep on it, and we’ll get to work tomorrow morning.”

Langston disappeared without another word. Mercy shot me a weak smile before running after him. “I’m sorry about my husband’s poor behavior. He can be quite a mule sometimes. I’ll talk to him about it. See you tomorrow, Roman,” she said gently.

“It’s been a long day,” Jesse said, yawning. “I’m going to turn in too. Good night.”

“Night, Jesse. See you tomorrow,” I said.

After Jesse was gone, I was left alone with Maggie. She was staring at the fireplace, deep in thought. Her clenched hands were folded over her lap, knuckles white.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were the owners’ daughter earlier?” I asked, sitting next to her on the sofa.

Her body tensed. “Does it matter?” she asked.

“No, but—I was going to find out anyway.”

“I don’t want you to treat me any differently from the rest of the staff,” Maggie said, arresting my gaze with her bewitching eyes.

“Don’t worry…I wasn’t planning on it,” I said.

“Good.” Maggie stood up, smoothing out her sweater dress. “If you want to criticize me, go ahead. I’m a big girl. I can handle it.” I realized she’d changed her outfit. Her new ensemble consisted of a figure-flattering knit dress and ankle boots. Did she do that for me? “Well, lay it on me,” she said, her lips quirking up as if to challenge me.

She wanted the truth from me…

I’d give her the goddamn truth.

“Maggie?”

“Yes, Roman?”

“You did an absolute shit job cleaning my room,” I said. “If you were my employee, I would’ve fired you on the spot. I’ll need you to dust my suite top to bottom tomorrow. Wipe, vacuum, wash everything. Bright and early.” It was also my excuse to see her again. Not that she needed to know that.

Maggie bit that succulent bottom lip of hers and nodded. “Noted,” she said. “I’ll clean it tomorrow morning. Anything else?”

I nodded. “One more thing…Wear something more appropriate for work tomorrow.”

Maggie frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Your breasts were practically popping out earlier.”

“I don’t wear that to work!” Maggie cried, cheeks flaming. “I wasn’t working when I came up earlier. And it wasn’t that bad!”

“Just thought I’d remind you to keep things professional.”

Maggie walked toward me and poked me in the chest with her index finger. “Well, how about you practice what you preach, Mr. Finnegan, and stop checking out my boobs. Perv!”

“I wasn’t deliberately checking them out, they were actively trying to escape from your top,” I said, wrapping my hand around her finger and holding it tight. “If you’re not careful, you’ll end up giving people the wrong ideas.”

Maggie twisted away from my grasp and bit her lip. “What wrong ideas?”

“You know…”

“Say it,” she challenged.

“That you’re a tramp.”

“Good night, Mr. Finnegan!” Maggie cried indignantly before she left.

I grinned as I watched her stomp upstairs. The look on her face when she got riled up…priceless. That quirk of her lips, the way her nostrils flared…the way she batted her long lashes…

Something told me it’d take every ounce of my self-restraint to keep things professional between us.

PURCHASE ON: AMAZON (WORLDWIDE) – IBOOKS (WORLDWIDE) – KOBO – NOOK

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